An astronomer, a composer, and an artist have come together to make music from the waves detected by scientific instruments on Earth, in space, and on Mars. The resulting album is available free online, and the makers hope it will increase interest in and understanding of the phenomena that form its basis.
Sound is just a set of pressure waves whose frequencies produce a response in our brain. Although sound cannot carry in space, other sorts of waves – for example, electromagnetic and gravitational – can
Space weather researcher Dr Nigiel Meredith has been collecting examples of these “space sounds” and passing them to composer Dr Kim Cunio, who turns the cycles into sound waves and adjusts their frequencies to suit our ears.
The album Celestial Incantations includes a piece based on the sounds of the Perseverance Rover driving across Jezero Crater. Another track uses the oscillations picked up by the Rosetta Spacecraft's magnetometer as it visited Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. A more Earthly composition uses sounds made by air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice for 200,000 years released by glaciologists studying the Earth's climate history.
Cunio modifies the frequencies to make them more pleasing to our ears while attempting to stay true to the natural waveform, and adds further musical notes on top.
Perhaps the most original piece is Cataclysm, based on the ripple in spacetime produced by two black holes merging. These events produce a distinctive waveform known as a “chirp”, which starts low and rises as the two massive objects spiral faster before combining.
Cunio told IFLScience he slowed the original waveform 8, 16, and 32 times to create a scale that forms the basis of the piece.
Despite not having studied science formally since school, Cunio told IFLScience he has always been interested in it. For some pieces, such as Jezero Crater, he has not felt the need to learn more about the subject than the sounds themselves. For others, however, he has tapped into the knowledge of both his collaborators and of specialists on the relevant topics at the Australian National University, where he teaches composition.
Part of the project's intent is to inspire interest in the sources of the sounds Cunio uses. "Space is vast and with this album we have the opportunity to really think about what this vastness means for us as we listen," Cunio said in a statement. "We hope that this album allows people to imagine time and space in the grandest sense."
Cunio also hopes to go further, using the music to deepen the understanding of those who already possess some knowledge of the topic. He told IFLScience that artist Diana Scarborough, who has a background in science, has made animations and dance pieces based on the phenomena whose sounds the project used, and performed them at scientific conferences following presentations on the same topics.
Cunio noted Pythagoras believed the planets circled the Earth and resonances in their orbits created “Music of the Spheres,” an idea that stuck through the Middle Ages. "Now we can join Pythagoras in a great imagining thanks to the ability of computers to speed up and transpose these phenomena into our perceptual ranges."
Celestial Incantations follows a collaboration between the trio named Aurora Musicalis that layered music over sonic translations of the effects on Earth's magnetosphere being struck by solar storms.